Portland Gas & Coke (photo by Jody Miller)
BY BRIAN LIBBY
Imagine a few years from now you're driving on Highway 30 north of downtown Portland. You've passed miles of industrial facilities and train tracks, but as the city's most beloved bridge (the St. Johns) comes into view, so does the city's newest park: a former Superfund site converted into grassy fields, surrounding the ruins of the old Portland Gas & Coke building. It wasn't easy to convert from industrially contaminated site to public area, but it was part of an emerging trend of cities reclaiming their waterfronts for public use. And the ruins are as gorgeous as any working building in the city. Maybe while you're walking the dog here, your kid might get curious about the old building. Its Romanesque style could inspire her or him to become an architect, or its sense of mystery could prompt a storytelling novelist.
That future is still a long way off, and might not ever happen. Yet after decades of sitting forlorn but beloved from afar, the Portland Gas & Coke building has seen heightened activity in recent weeks since owner NW Natural announced its intent to demolish. Could this become a transformative momement for the city, or a lost opportunity to honor our history?
As Willamette Week's Ravleen Kaur reports, the Gas & Coke building was until last year included in the City of Portland's Historic Resource Inventory. But NW Natural asked the city to remove the building, and the city complied. Unfortunately, the inventory requires owner consent.
“I’m not sure how a contaminated building would go on a historic list in the first place,” NW Natural’s Melissa Moore tolk Kaur. “The building has been decaying.”
That people love the Gas & Coke building and would like to see it survive, even if it's just a ruin, the company seems to think of as a curious nuisance. And, honestly, mabye what the ragtag group of Portlanders interested in its preservation despite the enormous challenges are. But innovative ideas are nearly always laughed at when they first emerge.
Besides, it needn't be an entirely either/or proposition between demolition and renovation. Restore Oregon (formerly known as the Historic Preservation League of Oregon) has a compelling proposal: let the Gas & Coke building continue to decay as a ruin.
"Saving the Gas & Coke Building will require a positive community dialogue with Northwest Natural about the options available for studying and preserving the building. A formal Historic Structure Report that delineated the building’s physical condition and outlined recommendations for treatment would provide a better understanding of the building’s reuse potential," writes Brandon Spencer-Hartle of Restore Oregon. "Furthermore, a conceptual reuse study that outlined options for adapting the building for new uses (and associated expense/revenue) could help answer questions about viability that today are unanswered."
As it happens, preserved ruins have a long tradition. Think of some of the most important architectural works of Western civilization like the Acropolis in Athens (no, not the Portland strip bar of the same name) or the Roman Forum in Rome. Think even, on a humbler scale, of the Lovejoy Columns that have been preserved here in Portland.
"Demolishing the building will be costly—probably in the tens of thousands of dollars range. Because the building has served as a photogenic relic for over 50 years, local advocates might consider advocating for options to seal the building to alleviate Northwest Natural’s understandable concerns about liability," Spencer-Hartle adds. "Because the entire site is contaminated and vulnerable to a seismic event, securely mothballing the Gas & Coke Building is one preservation strategy that would keep opportunities open for redevelopment in the future."
In America, the notion of reverence for ruins has taken longer to resonate with the public than it has in Europe, where an affection for ancient Greek and Roman ruins is itself hundreds of years old. In Oregon, we don't have thousands of years of built history to look back upon (Native American tribes here, while just as culturally relevant as European civilizations, built hardly any permanent buildings), and as a result we tend to act like Hollywood set designers, constantly erecting and dismantling. We shouldn't expect NW Natural to behave any differently.
Like politicians, most corporations may want to do the right thing but they don't like being surprised. Once they announce a position, it has been researched and internally debated enough that they're ready to move on, even if the conversation has just been introduced in public. No one is asking NW Natural to spend millions of dollars that they otherwise wouldn't. No one is expecting the company to restore a building if it's too deteriorated or if the ground underneath is contaminated.
Perhaps it's caught the company a little off-guard to have to start thinking about a public conversation about its building, or to have to brainstorm how their Superfund cleanup could be done without sacrificing this architecture. Honestly, the degree of affection out there caught me off-guard.
But this is an opportunity for NW Natural as much as it's an annoyance. The company possesses a building that, however decayed it may be, means something to the community. They've provided households with hundreds of millions of dollars of fuel over the decades, and that will always be the company's focus. Yet now the company has the opportunity to go beyond our expectations of a tone-deaf corporation beholden only to its shareholders. It may not be their role, but NW Natural has the opportunity to be a cultural savior.
There is certainly precedent for turning contaminated industrial areas into greenspace. Look at Seattle's Gas Works Park. "This 20 acre point on Lake Union was cleared in 1906 to construct a plant to manufacture gas from coal - later converted to crude oil. Import of natural gas in the 1950's made the plant obsolete," the Seattle Parks website explains. "The city acquired the site for a park in 1962. The park was opened to the public in 1975. The boiler house has been converted to a picnic shelter with tables, fire grills and an open area. The former exhauster-compressor building, now a children's play barn, features a maze of brightly painted machinery."
Taking advantage of this Superfund-to-swingsets opportunity won't be easy, financially or politically. But there's already a lot of money being spent here to clean up a riverfront Superfund site. Why clean it up at all if the ultimate goal is something other than public use of and access to the land?
And if there's anything recent weeks have shown, it's that a lot more people love the Gas & Coke building than we realized. And as I said in Kaur's Willamette Week article, the Gas & Coke sits across the Willamette River from Cathedral Park. It's a kind of industrial cathedral in its own right. You don't have to be an architecture blogger or a pie-in-the-sky community activist to see the potential and the value.
“Every city looks the same,” says Gas & Coke preservationist Kathy Evans in Kaur's story. “The things that make us different are the things we should protect.”